Government

Work to make Cedar Rapids storm system safer picks up pace

Increased C.R. stormwater revenue helps tackle backlog

Grates cover a storm drain Tuesday over the Vinton Ditch in northwest Cedar Rapids. Work on safety improvements like this has proved more costly than anticipated, slowing progress. But that pace is about to pick up. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Grates cover a storm drain Tuesday over the Vinton Ditch in northwest Cedar Rapids. Work on safety improvements like this has proved more costly than anticipated, slowing progress. But that pace is about to pick up. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Begun after a teenager was swept to his death during a 2014 flash flood, work to make the city’s storm system safer and more effective is about to pick up its pace.

The effort to gate storm drain inlets and make other safety modifications began in earnest in response to the death of Logan Blake, a 17-year-old who was thrust by a surge of water into an open 54-inch sewer pipe and carried more than a mile and a half into Cedar Lake.

Since then, the city has reconstructed six storm inlets out of 18 identified as needing modifications, leaving 12 to go. The effort has proved much more costly than expected, said Dave Wallace, sewer utility program manager.

“We want to increase the funding level in the program and accelerate getting these completed,” Wallace said.

An increase in revenue from a 2016 change to the stormwater fee rate structure is allowing the city to begin tackling a $100 million backlog of stormwater infrastructure needs, including more safety fixes.

Officials cite stormwater improvements as key to mitigating flash flooding and cleaning the water supply.

In fiscal 2020, the stormwater division proposes investing $2.6 million, and then $17.3 million over five years, on stormwater improvements. The city was budgeting $1 to $2 million a year, often dipping into other pots of money or turning to bond financing, Wallace said.

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“They are doing projects that have been on the books for decades,” said Scott Olson, a City Council member and chairman of the infrastructure committee. “Flash flooding is almost as devastating as the flood was in 2008. We are seeing heavier and heavier rains. ... We finally have money to install detention ponds and other projects recommended in the 1990s, but we haven’t had money for.”

Still, he added, it will “take a lot of years to get caught up.”

The council is required to approve a fiscal 2020 budget, which would include the stormwater budget, in March.

Restructuring stormwater fees based on the on Equivalent Residential Units — a way of measuring how much impervious surface is on a property — has created a revenue influx and a dedicated funding source for stormwater projects, Wallace said.

While the vast majority of property owners saw a negligible change under the fee restructuring, large commercial property owners with big parking lots or buildings preventing stormwater from naturally absorbing into the ground were projected to face increases up to $46,592 each, compared with what had been a flat fee of $3,133. The city considers individual bills confidential, so it is not clear how much the bills increased.

But the fee has been generating $5 million a year, about half of which is earmarked for stormwater infrastructure improvements and half for operations — doubling the $2.5 million per year generated before the changes, the city said.

The city has also budgeted $250,000 a year for a cost-share program with business owners who adopt stormwater best practices. The city has awarded $101,333 so far, including to St. Mark’s Methodist Church and Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust for permeable pavers and to Buffalo United Methodist Church and Crestwood Ridge Apartments for biocells.

As part of the rate structure change, the city also established a fee reduction program in which property owners could cut their bills by participating in an education program or reducing their stormwater runoff through best practice methods.

Six properties have used the program, but city officials cited privacy concerns in declining to release details.

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In the case of the drain inlets, the riskiest have been addressed, including near Arthur Elementary School where in 2014 Blake was pulled in while trying to retrieve a Frisbee, and near Harrison and Hoover elementaries, city officials said.

In a proposed capital budget for fiscal 2020, officials hope to increase the investment for inlets from $50,000 per year to $200,000 per year for the next three, allowing for the modification of three storm inlets in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1. Each has been costing $60,000 to $100,000, said Matt Feuerhelm, a project engineer in the stormwater sanitary engineering division.

In addition to gating the openings, the area must be regraded, the apron where the storm pipe opens must be reconstructed and a path to ease maintenance are needed, he said.

Another primary budget item is constructing or designing seven detention basins, which protect downstream properties from rainwater.

The basins should also relieve pressure on future pump stations, which are being designed to pump pooling water into the Cedar River, Feuerhelm said.

As one example, staff propose investing $1 million to expand the Harrison Detention Basin at 11th Street NW near M Avenue NW, doubling the size of the basin.

Other proposed budget items include a new culvert for Spoon Creek south of Cottage Grove on 34th Street SE and drain tile extensions from properties to the storm sewer system.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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